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SNP must rethink its policy on Europe

THERE is a simple if bold way for the SNP to recover from its blackest of weeks.

It should rethink its policy on Europe. I accept that the party's current leadership will never be Eurosceptic, but they should now admit that they cannot guarantee that an independent Scotland would necessarily gain swift and painless accession to full membership of the EU. Indeed gaining membership might well be a complicated, divisive and protracted process.

The party should made a virtue out of this and promise the people of an independent Scotland a referendum on EU membership within, say, two years of full independence. That would be a fair and democratic way out of the current mess.

The SNP is at present a very pro-European party but there has always been within it an honourable Eurosceptic strain. This was best represented by the party's most prominent intellectual of the last 30 years or so, the late and much lamented Stephen Maxwell, who was also a leading figure in Scotland's voluntary sector. Although he loved the SNP and was at one stage one of its vice-chairs, and was through his adult life an assiduous worker for its cause, his considered and cerebral Euroscepticism did render him something of an outsider in the current party.

Intellectually he was by far the most persuasive proponent of Scottish independence I've ever met. He died earlier this year but he had completed a short, elegant presentation of the case for independence that was published posthumously (Arguing for Independence, Luath Press).

The book is written by someone who manifestly did not wish to cause any trouble at this pivotal moment in his party's and country's history, but you can find in it some of the reasons for Stephen's EU doubts. He is for example full of praise for Norway, so near to us, so similar to us in so many ways, a highly successful small independent country that is not a member of the EU and yet is arguably, as the UN Human Development Index regularly indicates, one of the most socially just and economically successful countries in the entire world.

Stephen also refers to the vexed and important matter of fisheries policy. The EU has never been much of a friend to Scotland's fishermen. And our fish, and seafood, if less important than our oil, would be crucial components in an independent Scotland's prosperity.

Meanwhile some EU member states – for example Spain and Belgium – are seriously concerned about independence movements within their borders. Their politicians play this down, but these countries might well resist any notion that a newly independent Scotland could set an example by smoothly gaining full EU membership.

There is suddenly a further reason for caution on the European issue. More and more leading British politicians are expressing strong misgivings. Euroscepticism is rapidly becoming a mainstream position in English politics. The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has just announced that "British" disillusion with the EU has never been deeper. David Cameron seems far more scared of the UKIP than of the Labour Party. How will he try to appease, or trump, UKIP?

Within the Labour Party, Gisela Stuart MP, who probably knows more about the EU and how it works than anyone else in the UK Parliament, is now openly arguing that Britain should quit the EU. I reckon she is a trailblazer and that before long some better known names, members of the Shadow Cabinet, may well join her. Some of them are already arguing for radical reform and swingeing budget cuts within the EU.

Of course the SNP need not be bothered that Euroscepticism is growing so rapidly south of the Border. But after the disastrous confusion of last week, the party's leadership should surely arrive at the obvious conclusion: It is not a given that an independent Scotland would, or even should, be a member of the EU. The case for that membership will become more and more complicated to make. The final position, ideally, should be left to the people of a newly-independent Scotland.

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